Trial-level federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson has handled some of the most politically significant court cases of the Trump era and its aftermath and become one of the most incisive voices on the corruption and political spin of the era.
Known for her sharp criticism of the Trump administration’s moves in the criminal proceedings of former Trump advisers Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, Jackson this week cut through Washington’s noise again as she called former Attorney General William Barr’s considerations for rolling out the Mueller report “public relations” in a records access lawsuit opinion.
Days later, in the criminal cases of two January 6 US Capitol riot defendants, she noted how former President Donald Trump was continuing to spread lies, potentially inspiring his supporters to strike again.
Trump “continues to propagate the lie that inspired the attack on a near daily basis,” she wrote in an opinion Thursday keeping riot defendant Karl Dresch in jail. “And the anger surrounding the false accusation continues to be stoked by multiple media outlets as well as the state and federal party leaders who are intent on censuring those who dare to challenge the former President’s version of events.”
Dresch, like other Trump followers, “stands ready to do it again,” because of a belief that a civil war may be necessary and his allegiance to Trump, who continues to challenge the election, Jackson noted.
Her commentary about Barr, the Capitol rioters and the former President himself isn’t atypical coming from the DC District Court, where several judges have made headlines in recent years for harshly calling out obfuscation in the Trump administration and the criminal actors connected to Trump.
But Jackson has handled more of the most high-profile cases than perhaps any other district judge in Washington, and she still oversees historically important cases.
Jackson has noted the culture of lies repeatedly.
“If people don’t have the facts, democracy doesn’t work,” she said in 2019, to Manafort’s co-defendant and former Trump campaign official Rick Gates, after the pair had hidden their lucrative lobbying business on behalf of Ukrainians.
The same year, she told the former Trump campaign chairman Manafort, “What you were doing was lying to members of Congress and the American public.”
Taking on lying
Jackson has become well known in recent years for preparing long recitations for even procedural courtroom check-ins.
In the Manafort, Gates and Stone cases, and now in Capitol riot cases, she sometimes has spent more than an hour speaking without interruption, outlining her legal considerations and facts of the case.
At times, those speeches have given her room to comment on what may be the defining aspect of the Trump years: disinformation.
During Stone’s sentencing, for instance, she spoke at length about the boldness of him lying to Congress to protect the President.
She called Stone’s embrace of lying a threat “to the very foundation of our democracy.”
In the Stone case — her last major defendant to sentence from the Mueller era — Jackson gave even broader commentary than before about the historical implications of what had happened.
“If it goes unpunished, it will not be a victory for one party or another,” she told him, before sentencing him to 40 months in prison. (Trump granted Stone clemency before his surrender date.)
“Everyone loses because everyone depends on the representatives they elect to make the right decisions on a myriad of issues — many of which are politically charged but many of which aren’t — based on the facts.”
Jackson declined to speak to CNN about her experience on the bench.
Robert Trout, a defense lawyer who is a former colleague and mentor to Jackson, said that like many judges, she holds the government and political officials to a high standard.
“Do I think she believes her role in these high-profile cases is history-making?” Trout said, responding to a question from CNN about how Jackson may assess her work. “No, I think she believes she’s just doing her job. What’s history-making about that?”
Threats and intimidation
In the Stone case, Jackson also had to respond to political sniping and ad hominem attacks from Trump’s online sphere.
First, Stone posted an image of her on Instagram with crosshairs behind her head; she barred him from social media and the Justice Department launched a threat investigation that resulted in no charges. Later, around Stone’s sentencing, Jackson faced tweets from Trump about what she should do as well as about a juror who agreed to convict Stone.
She hit back on the juror harassment by bringing surprise witnesses into a court proceeding to testify about the Stone jury’s integrity.
The hearing was high drama — unusual for the federal judiciary, especially compared to the halls of Congress and the White House, where cameras capture Washington’s most performative moments.
Setting a tone
As of March, Jackson has been on the bench for a decade.
Before her appointment from President Barack Obama, she worked as a line prosecutor and then a defense attorney, gaining experience in high-profile trials, in courtrooms like the one she now presides over. Defense attorneys who acknowledge her experience working in their shoes now say she isn’t particularly sympathetic to any side of a case.
Her responses to Stone’s Instagram and the Justice Department’s more recent handling of the obstruction memo to Barr aren’t out of line, they say, given that judges don’t like to be threatened or railroaded in their cases.
“All of the things she’s taken umbrage at, they’re well within the mainstream reaction,” said one defense attorney, who declined to use his name because he appears before Jackson in court.
Shan Wu, who represented Gates in the Mueller probe before he pleaded guilty, echoed that Jackson has a fair approach. “Her demeanor, whether it is in a sparsely populated courtroom or one packed with national media, is always the same, and I think that says a lot about her integrity as a judge.”
When deciding the first sentence for a Mueller investigation defendant, Dutch lawyer Alex Van Der Zwaan, Jackson gave him 30 days in prison for lying, a more significant sentence than other defendants with a similar crime.
It set an early tone for the Mueller cases. She later gave Manafort deputy Gates 45 days, largely because of his willingness to cooperate with investigators and his repentance. Manafort himself received more than 7 years in prison for foreign lobbying and financial crimes.
Jackson has been as tough toward Democrats in her courtroom as Republicans in the past. She presided over the criminal matters of former Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., whom she castigated for not acting with more integrity as a public official, and of former Obama White House counsel Greg Craig, whom a jury acquitted at trial in a case that related to Manafort’s work for Ukraine.
Trump-era cases continue
The cases in recent years — especially Stone’s and Manafort’s — gave Jackson one of the closest views of any person outside the Justice Department on foreign lobbying and Russian connections to American politics.
Even this week, the judge was still working on lingering aspects of the Manafort case, and unsealed records about his interaction with a longtime Russian colleague and co-defendant.
She is also still handling a case about the Justice Department that isn’t directly related, but could prompt another round of reexamining the Trump administration. That’s the lawsuits former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page filed against the Justice Department after the release of their text messages, which fueled years of Trump’s Twitter attacks.
Jackson has so far greenlit evidence gathering in the case, which has prompted Strzok and Page to subpoena documents from Trump’s campaign. They could attempt to depose top Trump-era Justice Department leaders, and the case could see action before Jackson again this fall.